Liberia’s education sector has been on a downward trend since the end of the 14-year civil conflict that plagued the nation. But more alarming is that the solution proffered by the Government, namely the Public Private Partnership (PPP), also known as the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) program, is reportedly creating more problems detrimental to the future of Liberia, a Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education (COTAE) report has indicated.
COTAE said in its report released last week Wednesday that the PPP is gradually but emphatically proving to be a failure and the education sector further weakening, presenting a vague future for a nation of impoverished and mostly illiterate citizens.
In January 2016, government launched the PPP Program aimed at outsourcing all public primary schools over the next five years, reportedly at a cost of US$65 million in total. The decision was largely based on arguments that learning outcomes of public schools are extremely poor and that radical reforms were needed to improve academic results, especially literacy and numeracy at the primary level.
Although the introduction of the PPP initiative was greeted with a lot of criticism and skepticism from a wide range of stakeholders in the education sector, civil society, the media and parents, the government in March 2016 signed a contract with Bridge International Academies (BIA) to operate 50 primary schools under an ongoing one (1) year pilot.
However, the total number of schools under the pilot was increased to 94, with BIA awarded 24 schools while seven other providers, including BRAC, Omega and More Than Me are managing the remaining 70.
Many had from the onset of the PPP project predicted that it was going to fail. These early warnings that government ignored might have stemmed from the failure signals detected within the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) from the outset.
BIA has schools in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, charging $6 per student per month. Its schools have come under fire for hidden costs and poor standards and teaching methods.
In 2014 BIA received US$10 million of funding from the World Bank’s investment arm, the International Finance Corporation.
The COTAE report, presented by its Acting National Coordinator, Anderson Miamen, is an assessment of the Partnership Schools program with specific issues highlighted, including BIA’s compliance issues with the MOU it signed with the Ministry of Education (MOE).
From September 2016 to February 2017, COTAE visited Bridge-run schools in Margibi, Grand Bassa, Nimba, River Cess, and Bong counties, gathering information.
Violation of Liberian Law
Among its key findings, COTAE indicated that the recruitment of BIA operators was marred by malpractices, where the laws of the country were violated, specifically the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC) law.
The report noted that BIA and other providers were recruited without any competitive procurement process. “PPCC confirmed this to COTAE,” Miamen said.
COTAE also noted that access to information is lacking within the program. “It is difficult to understand whether the original agreement that was supposed to see BIA manage 50 schools but was reduced to 24 for US$8 million—excluding salaries for teachers – has been revised.
It is not clear if government’s MOU with Bridge has been revised, as the original 50 schools has been reduced to 24 without corresponding reduction in the amount of money Bridge is supposed to receive (over US$8 million),” the report said.
Besides, COTAE said, MOUs or contracts with the remaining seven (7) providers are not publicly available, although they have been requested on numerous occasions, for review and scrutiny.
BIA Receives Preferential Treatment from Government
It is a known fact that the performances of all providers will be measured to determine if they will be contracted to implement the program beyond the pilot. But the report says that BIA is receiving more political, moral and financial support than other providers, insinuating that BIA is given preferential treatment by government.
“For example, while other providers have not started operation, all 24 BIA schools are operating, although with serious issues. Some providers, like Stella Maris, have not yet started full operation despite the school year nearing completion,” the report said.
BIA’s schools are accessible schools with all having better infrastructures (buildings) compared to most public schools in the country. Also, all BIA schools are located in areas where data-enabled tablets and Smartphones can be used for teaching and reporting.
Furthermore, the report says, BIA is receiving more funding than other providers participating in the pilot and traditional schools not covered by the program.
The issue of funding challenges as the government struggles to mobilize the required resources to fund the program was also raised in the report.
“Commitments from donors and government itself are not forthcoming as expected as some providers have not even started operating, despite going more than 6 months into the school year,” the report said.
Many have also been critical about the issue of sustainability and the danger of overreliance on donors to fund such a cost-intensive program.
As previously raised, BIA’s poor performance records in Kenya, Uganda and other places were ignored by Government when introducing the program to Liberia.
Access and Equity Quesitons
It is no secret that BIA’s classroom cap (maximum 55 students) is denying students access to education by denying them access to the Bridge schools. These students unfortunately end up not enrolling in school at all—a situation that is counterproductive to government’s compulsory primary education policy. Some of those that are rejected end up in an overcrowded class in another nearby school that tries to accommodate them.
But even for those admitted by BIA, security, transportation and financial constraints are preventing some from continuing. This situation is more evident in the interior of the country.
The report says that instead of curtailing the “mess” in the education sector (to quote President Sirleaf), for which the PPP was introduced, the program seems to be creating more of that in other schools.
Schools accommodating students who were denied access to BIA schools are overcrowded and face serious logistical challenges. In some instances, parents have hurriedly erected makeshift structures to accommodate students rejected by Bridge, but lack of teachers and other logistical challenges are still affecting the quality of education in these schools.
As some BIA schools have no meals or feeding programs as required under the MOU, more children are dropping out due to hunger and their parents’ inability to maintain them for the extended hours at these schools.
COTAE also accused BIA of breaching the MOU with the government. “Some schools close before the stipulated time due to lack of or inconsistency of the feeding program for students. This breach has serious implications for the curriculum as all materials may not be covered. Students, mostly children, are expected to be in school from 7:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., but without food,” the report noted.
COTAE also discovered that Bridge provides only one set of uniforms per student for the entire school year. Many of the students are kids and coming from school late means they will dress untidy the next day.
With the signing of the PPP agreement by government, UN’s special rapporteur on education, Kinshore Singh, said that Liberia was on the brink of committing a “gross violation” of its international obligation under the Right to Education with plans to outsource the running of publicly funded schools.
Singh was adding his voice to mounting criticisms of the PPP initiative, meant to see primary education in the country managed by BIA, a private, for-profit firm, and others. The UN education chief described the government’s move as an “attack” on public schools and teachers.
Singh said Liberia was not only violating its education obligations to the country but also its commitment to Sustainable Development Goals number four, related to education.
“This is unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed,” he said. “Provision of public education of good quality is a core function of the state, and abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education.”
He said it is “ironic” that Liberia seems unable to collect the resources to meet its core obligation to provide a free primary education to every child, but can find huge sums of money to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf.
UNICED, a coalition of Liberian civil society organizations, including the National Teachers Association of Liberia, had earlier slammed the plan in letters to a number of high-profile people and organizations, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
It is also predicted, when sustained and scaled up as envisaged, the Liberian PPP will arguably be the biggest wide-scale outsourcing of public primary schools on the African continent, if not in the world.
“Shocking with all these shortcomings, it is sad that MOE is planning to solicit proposals to extend the program beyond the pilot in the absence of an independent evaluation report that should inform such action/decision,” the report noted.
The report says without proper accountability and evidenced-based decision-making, MOE will struggle to successfully implement the program, as the inputs of critical voices that are necessary to highlight flaws and limitations will not be solicited.
All efforts made to contact the MOE for comments failed as Deputy Minister for Administration, Aigon Tingba’s phone rang endlessly without response for two days. He did not respond to text messages sent to him about COTAE’s allegations against the ministry.
The head of Stella Maris, Sister Mary Laurene, also declined to respond to inquiries about why her institution is yet to commence the implementation of its agreement with GOL under the PPP. When contacted last Wednesday, she indicated that she had not seen the COTAE report so she could not respond. Our reporter, through a text message, volunteered to make the report available to her if she would provide him with her email address, but up to press time her email contact had not yet been provided. Further phone calls made went unanswered.